The end result of Saturday night’s Division I state championship football game between top-seeded West Anchorage and seventh-seeded South Anchorage was what many had expected, as the Eagles were favorites to win and ultimately prevailed 34-21 to secure their first title since 2015.
However, what wasn’t anticipated by many outside of the two coaching staffs was the tremendous challenge that the Wolverines would pose for the first three quarters, leaving the game tied 21-21 entering the fourth quarter. West had defeated South 42-14 in a regular-season matchup, but West coach Tim Davis knew Saturday’s game would feature a different Wolverines team.
“We knew how good South had become and how scrappy they had played,” Davis said. “They had improved every week, and our Week 2 (regular season) game with them might as well have been an NFL preseason game.”
The victory completed an undefeated season against Alaska competition for the Eagles. At 10-2, they lost 33-26 to Hawaiian team ‘Aiea in Oahu. Due to making that trip, West was forced to forfeit its Week 4 matchup with Dimond.
“At the beginning of the season, I said that we were a very dangerous team, and there were a lot of questions, but I feel like we answered them over the course of the year,” West senior Aaron Hampton said. “This group grinded all offseason, all summer, and all season, and we are that team.”
After a back-and-forth game where both teams traded blows and West never held more than a one-score lead for the first 36 minutes, the Eagles’ defense clamped down in the fourth quarter and closed out the game.
“Coach (Devin) Collins and his staff have done a phenomenal job all year and the defense was only reason we were in the game because of their great play in the first half,” Davis said. “They bowed their necks when they needed to and got big stops. We got the two-score lead and then could just play keep-away.”
It only took five plays for the Eagles offense to find the end zone for the fourth time in the game, early in the fourth quarter when senior quarterback Azariah Atonio connected with junior wide receiver Ariel Sanchez for their second long touchdown bomb of the game at the 8:54 mark.
“That second half by (Azariah) was unbelievable,” Davis said. “The deep posts, the deep slot fades were just ‘wow’ to be accurate with that (throw).”
From there it was up to the West defense to get the stop it had been chasing for most of the second half up until that point. The Eagles got it when they forced the Wolverines to turn the ball over on downs.
“It was huge,” Hampton said. “After the previous kickoff, we said, ‘One more stop and we’re state champs,’ and that’s what happened.”
The offense proceeded to march on an eight-play scoring drive that was capped off with a 13-yard strike from Atonio to fellow senior Mason Tanoa on a running back wheel route out of the backfield for his third touchdown pass of the game with 7:21 left on the clock.
“It’s all about hard work and dedication, and at the end it was about who wanted it more,” Atonio said.
West forced a swift three-and-out followed by a punt on South’s next possession, and then their offense went on a time-consuming drive to drain the clock. The drive would’ve ended in more points for West had Tanoa’s 25-yard touchdown run not been negated by a holding penalty.
By the time the Wolverines got the ball back, there were only a few minutes left on the clock, and the Eagles forced four straight incompletions from South junior quarterback Cole Yarrington, resulting in a turnover on downs.
“Tonight belonged to the boys in orange and black, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of their story,” Davis said.
Atonio lined up in victory formation and kneeled out the final minute and a half of the game — and West was back on top after a seven-year drought.
“All glory to God,” he said. “I serve a God of miracles and tonight was a miracle.”
While West was able to move the ball pretty consistently throughout the game, South’s defense early on made sure it stayed close by coming up with some clutch stops deep in its own territory. The Wolverines forced back-to-back turnovers on downs in the red zone on the Eagles’ first two possessions in the opening period.
“We knew that coach (John) Lewis and crew had gotten this team to a championship level and they pushed us all the way to the brink,” Davis said.
It didn’t take long for West to get on the board in the second quarter as Hampton would pick up a loose ball and returned the fumble 11 yards for the first points of the game.
“It was kind of a gift and I didn’t want to get too excited, but once I got in the end zone I had to celebrate,” he said.
The Eagles offense got the ball back after their defense forced a punt and were driving for the possibility of a two-score lead when Atonio was blown up in the backfield for a strip sack by South’s Gabriel Fisher.
Riding the momentum of that timely turnover, the Wolverines would tie the game at 7-7 with just over four minutes left until halftime when Yarrington connected with senior wide receiver Falealili Lefano for a 50-yard catch and run touchdown.
West went three-and-out on their next possession but South failed to take the lead on their ensuing possession. Senior kicker Jack Hickox missed on a long field goal attempt, and the game remained a stalemate at halftime.
On the opening possession of the third quarter, Hampton lined up in a spot he hadn’t all game, in the backfield at running back. From there, he proceeded to carry the ball on four of the next five plays for 69 rushing yards and eventually found the end zone for the second time in the game on a beastly 48-yard run where he trucked and weaved his way into the open field before turning on the afterburners.
“I just do what the coaches tell me to do,” Hampton said. “I didn’t ask for the ball, but props to the offensive line. I couldn’t have got anything without that push.”
South answered on its first possession of the second half with a methodical drive and tied the game at 14-14 with 5:46 left in the third quarter on a one-yard touchdown plunge from sophomore Noah Goodwin.
The stalemate would be short-lived as West would retake the lead on a quick two-play scoring drive where Atonio and Sanchez connected for the first time in the game on a 66-yard touchdown long-range missile strike.
A big return from Lefano on the ensuing kickoff would set up South for a short scoring drive of their own that spanned just three plays and was capped off by a one-yard score from Yarrington on a quarterback sneak for the Wolverines’ final points of the game.
“Our main focus this week was brotherhood,” Atonio said. “Just staying together and being close as brothers. Our bond is what made us succeed on and off the field.”